Productivity Through Next Actions
In the productivity classic Getting Things Done, David Allen shared a lot of very helpful advice for, well, getting things done.
You might have heard of the two-minute rule: if a task is going to take you less than two minutes, do it right now.
A lot of books on productivity just elaborate on one point. Getting Things Done (GTD to its friends) is not like that. GTD is not one concept; it’s a complete system. It may be a hard system to implement and keep up with, but it’s definitely comprehensive.
One concept, like that 2-minute rule, that translates well to leadership planning is the idea of the next action.
What is a Next Action?
Allen argues you should break down almost all goals into a series of tasks, which themselves are actions. Those tasks are likely sequential. The problem is, we usually focus on the big picture outcome, making it hard to know where to start.
For instance, I think about completing my annual report; I don’t think about opening the folder with all the spreadsheets I need, then organizing them into one place and so on.
The problem with that is that it makes us think too much about finding the right task when we should be working. That indecision can slow our momentum.
The next action is the very next thing you need to do at a granular level. By identifying that, you can focus on getting that thing done, and your to-do list is more specific and actionable.
A next action should be something you can do now. It should be as specific as possible, and it should have a clear done/not done check.
You want to research a new enterprise software system? That’s not a next action. Calling Samantha, who has implemented that system, and asking if she can meet with you for 15 minutes next Tuesday to discuss said system, is a next action.
The more ambiguous your task, the more important that you translate your plan into next actions.
It should be clear what you will do, specific, and make easy enough to pull out of a list and get done. It should be something that makes it clear what you are to act on and when it is finished.
Finding the next Action
Here are some times for finding the next action:
- It should be the task preventing progress on all others (critical path)
- It can help the next tasks (enablers)
- It can provide critical information (enlighteners)
- It can be the easiest (momentum)
Sometimes, you will know exactly what the next action should be. When you can’t identify it, use the list above to help.
If you still don’t know what should be next, do the thing that you can complete with the most ease. That momentum from checking something off the list can really help you get into the flow.
Leadership Next Actions
Leadership tasks usually require the translation of ambiguous, high-level goals into specific action. You might do those specific actions yourself or delegating them.
Either way, it will help tremendously to have them distilled to the language of a next action.
You want to coach someone on your team? Great. That’s the outcome. Translate it into a next action. Maybe that’s summarizing the key themes you need to review with them, or maybe it’s scheduling the time to meet. Whatever it is, the exercise of identifying that thing and making the time to do it will help with your leadership output.
Making the List
Ideally, you can take whatever the big outcome is and break it down to all the steps you need, not just the next action.
All of them should be something you can act on now, and able to be done in one unit of work.
Again, this not only removes the burden of figuring out what you should do when you sit down to work, but also makes it possible for you to delegate tasks, where possible.
When looking at your list, think to yourself: “Is this something I can do in a 30 minute block of time? Could my team?” If not, try to break it down more or make it more specific.
Having a Plan and Being Clear
Knowing the next small thing that will move you closer to your big goals is very liberating. You don’t need to get the plan completely right, and things can change, but the exercise of breaking things into their smaller parts will help you find the path—and the time—to get them done.
David Allen – Getting Things Done